This tag is associated with 12 posts

Play Dough a Go Go!

Play dough is brilliant.  Practically free and endless possibilities.  Plus it lets kids do the whole messy play thing without actually making that much mess, which is always a good thing.Plus if you use the cheap home made version you don’t need to worry about mixing the colours.  I start off with a variety of basic colours (usually based on whatever colourings I have to hand) and then let the kids make further colours by mixing.

Child playing with multicoloured playdough made by an easy homemade recipe

There are a few recipes knocking about the internet, with various no cook options or ingredients, but this is the best one that I have used.  Where I say cup, use any cup, as long as you use the same one each time.  I use a little plastic beaker.Use your common sense and don’t play with playdough on your best tablecloth or tread it into your expensive persian rug, but then if you have that kind of thing in a house with small children then you are a braver (and possibly quite a bit richer) person than me…

Home Made Play Dough

  • 2 cups flour (any will do)
  • Half a cup of salt
  • 1 cup cold water
  • A big spoon (or small glug) of oil – any will do
  • Two big spoons of cream of tartar (you can leave this out if you like, but it makes the dough more springy and stretchy and only costs a few pence)
  • Food colouring, smelly oil (use food safe versions in case it gets nibbled…), glitter or whatever else you want to use to make it pretty and/or smelly

Chuck everything in a pan and put over a low heat.  Keep stirring until it looks like…dough.  Allow to cool before giving to children (obviously…)

You can also just add boiling water to the ingredients in a bowl and stir, to avoid having to put it on the hob.

I tend to leave out the colourings and flavourings, cook plain dough and then knead in the colours/flavours/glitter.  That way I only have to cook once but can make loads of colours.  Beware though that colourings can stain, and are much more likely to stain your worktop (and hands, and clothes, and children) before they are mixed in.

This recipe isn’t toxic, but isn’t exactly edible either, given that it will taste horrible and has loads of salt.  Hopefully inquisitive toddlers will just have one taste and then be put off.  Hopefully.

Keep your playdough in an air tight container and it should last at least six weeks.  Enjoy, and let me know if you come up with any cool ideas!

Have Your Cake and Eat It.

The other day I ate a piece of cake and felt a little bit guilty about it. That might sound like a perfectly normal sentence for a young female to say. Isn’t it? Now I’ve never felt guilty about eating cake before in my entire life, unless it wasn’t my cake. And even when it was someone else’s cake I only pretended to be guilty so I wouldn’t lose friends over it. I’d changed.Home made cakes decorated with bright icing.  Photo: Nona Fara

I was equating myself with those people who decline a solitary Monster Munch from their friends’ grab bag because they’re trying to ‘be good’. It was horrible. Not because I didn’t want to be like those people, but because I didn’t want to fall into the ‘hate yourself’ trap that society has set for everyone, but more so women and especially young women. I didn’t want to have to eat Special K for all my meals and I didn’t want to fit into a size 8, really. It was never really a priority.

But I felt guilty.

I felt guilty because I’d inadvertently taken in a message which I’d always challenged and discarded. The weight loss and diet industry had got to me and it had made me feel worthless. Worthless like so many people do every day. Yet somehow it’s become taboo for actually fat people to speak about how daft this is. It’s taboo for fat people to be happy with themselves. Hell, it’s taboo for most women to be happy with themselves. Think about that for a second. Then think about how ace you are. I bet you all have really good hair and are excellent at judging exactly how much ketchup to put on your plate, or something like that. Mainly, though, think about how you shouldn’t let anyone shame you for how you look. You especially shouldn’t let anyone shame you for how you look then proceed to make vast amounts of money off said shame. You shouldn’t have to resort to thinking about how great your condiment measuring skills are to feel any sort of pride in yourself or even for confirmation that you’re not subhuman. Fuck that shit.

I’m overweight, yeah, but I’m not unhealthy. And even if I was, who gives anyone the right to judge any other person for something which is so personal. You can’t tell if someone leads a ‘healthy’ lifestyle, or a lifestyle that you approve of by looking at them. There’s a lot of research which shows that, yeah, you can be healthy and fat. Imagine it! I mean I’ve joked before about tricking people into not thinking I’m a vegetarian by being fat, and even though it sounds pretty ridiculous, it’s true. I get funny looks if I dare eat something unhealthy in public. Why do we let this happen? Is it because we’re told to hate not only ourselves for being fat, but other fat people?
Even if you have your own opinions on what is a ‘healthy’ body is, surely you can’t deny letting people have a healthy body image and the chance to not feel guilty and ashamed about how they look. You can’t deny people’s right not to be mentally tormented about their weight.
If you don’t want to be seen as ‘fat positive’, you don’t have to be. Just don’t judge people for their bodies, reject stereotypes about fat people and don’t buy into blaming fat people, shaming them and making them feel guilty. Come on, guys, we’re better than this.

8 ways to eat for less: a guide to savvy supermarket shopping

It’s a sorry state of affairs to see a grown woman crying at the supermarket checkout but that’s exactly how I felt today when I saw my final food bill. Prices are now so high that we all have to make some serious changes in how we shop to survive. There are the basic options: change down a supermarket or change down a brand. However with many supermarkets price-matching at the moment that might not make much difference. What are the best ways of cutting our food bills without cutting our lifestyle?

1. Know your labels.

So many people do not understand the difference between a best before date, a display until date and a use by date on food:

Best Before means just that; that the food is guaranteed to be at it’s best before that date but is perfectly fine to eat after that date provided no signs of degradation (i.e. mould/separation of dairy products/fermentation) are visible.

Display Until dates are much the same, often found on fresh fruit and vegetables these are purely for stock rotation. They tell the shop staff when they need to remove old stock.

Use By dates on the other hand should never be ignored. They are there for your safety. Usually this date is on things like meat, fish, poultry and dairy and items which may carry salmonella. Please do not attempt to eat any of these after the use by date.

Notice the Display Until and Use By dates are different!

2. Make use of your freezer.

Frozen food is much cheaper and actually fresher than a lot of the ‘fresh’ produce you get in stores, especially when it comes to fish & vegetables. You’ll also find you have far less waste.

Batch cook. Freezers work more economically when full. The less space they have to chill, the better. Resist the temptation to fill it with over-priced ready meals – shop smart and batch cook your favourite family dishes. Lasagne, curry and stew are favourites in our house but pretty much anything will freeze. Just remember: if it’s already been thawed it must be cooked before you refreeze it. If in doubt, Google it.

Be a yellow sticker shopper. Most supermarkets have a reduced section. Get to know where yours is and don’t be afraid to ask staff what time they normally do the markdowns. Remember that although these products may be on their display until or best before date if you freeze on day of purchase they will last months. Alternatively you can cook up a batch of something tasty on the same day and freeze that for later.

Split meat packs. If you regularly buy packs of meat which are large enough to feed your household for more than one meal split them into individual portions before freezing. I always freeze chicken breasts, pork chops, steaks etc individually to reduce waste.

3. Be fridge smart

Can you remember what is in your fridge right now? So much of our food budget is spent on perishable items which must be stored in the fridge. Much of it gets wasted when it’s pushed to the back and forgotten until well after it is edible. Perishables like meat, fish, fresh vegetables and dairy are some of the most expensive items on your shopping list each week so think smart. Only keep in your fridge what needs to be there. This is usually only dairy products, cooked meat and enough raw meat for the next couple of days. Get in the habit of freezing all your meat and take out what you need each morning/evening for the following day. Switch to frozen vegetables,for everything but salads and you will cut down massively on waste.

Top tip: NEVER use the salad drawer. Once it goes in the drawer you instantly forget you have it because you can’t see it.

4.Make a treat out of childhood favourites.

We all have foods that we loved as a kid that we feel either guilty or silly for enjoying as adult. Since most of us weren’t regularly served partridge in a red wine jus as 8 year olds, these meals are often cheap and cheerful dishes that can make us smile and save us pennies at the same time. In our house this amounts to spaghetti hoops on toast, potatoes and cheese sauce or fish fingers, chips and beans. Whip out one or two of these dishes a week and you’ve cut a chunk off your final bill.

Photo by rolled_trousers on flickr

5.Check your portion sizes

Once you have served a meal how much left over rice/pasta/potato goes in the bin and how much extra did you eat because it was there? Could you cut your portion sizes and cut your costs this way? Historically we have always used cheap carbohydrates like bread and potatoes to pad out a meal but often we take it too far and make portions far too big, making us both fatter and poorer at the same time. Even if you think your portions are about right try cutting them down a little. If you are actually still hungry finish off with some bread.

6. Dish up in the kitchen, serve to the table.

Unless it’s a special occasion, plate your food up in the kitchen and then bring to the table. By placing self-service dishes on the table you are likely to:

a) Cook more. A ramekin of peas doesn’t look right on a table so you’ll do a bowlful of unnecessary and wasteful peas to fill the space.

Photo by F0t0Synth on flickr

b) Eat more. No matter how much you’ve had you’ll have a little more if it’s right in front of you. If you have to walk to another room you are less likely to eat for the sake of it. This is also true of bread products. If you are eating something with bread only take one portion each to the table. Do not take the whole loaf or pack of rolls as they will be eaten just to empty the bowl.

7.Make use of your leftovers.

Always have a plan for your leftovers. You may wish to freeze them as they are ready for an emergency lunch or speedy evening meal. Most meats will make a great curry the day after you’ve cooked them. Keep a couple of premixed sauces in for this purpose and try and get them when they are half price. Alternatively, mix with a can of tomatoes and stock for an Italian style casserole or simply a little instant gravy and some homemade pastry for quick and tasty pie.You can always use roasted or grilled meat for packed lunches, sandwiches or salads.

8. Get inspired and learn new recipes.

Most of us have the same tried and tested recipes we use over and over again. As a consequence meal times can become quite boring. But with the same few ingredients it is possible to make several different meals (I’ll be showing you how later in the month with some of my store cupboard essentials). There are many websites out there, like, which can help you by providing recipes tailored to exactly what you have in your cupboards. The more recipes you are armed with, the more successful your battle against waste and expense will be.

Cheap and Easy Tart

Ok, so it’s not exactly cooking from scratch, but it is really tasty. Meditteraneam style cheap and easy tart

I got all the ingredients from Iceland, for less than £3, and they are all either from the freezer or canned, so it makes an excellent “last days before payday” meal.  Preparation time is about ten minutes, cooking about twenty, and there is plenty for a reasonably sensible small child to help with, and is easy enough for a student/rubbish chef.  These amounts made enough for a family of four plus cold snacks for the adults later, although our children are quite small.


  • Two thirds of a block of frozen puff pastry (you can use the whole block if you like, but then you wouldn’t be able to make lazy cheese twists with the leftovers)
  • About 500g of frozen Mediterranean veg (either roast in batches and freeze, or buy ready frozen)
  • A tin of chopped tomatoes
  • A small block of cheese (I used strong cheddar, which I buy big blocks of, chop up and freeze the smaller blocks, and is excellent to have in for things like this)

Frozen puff pastry defrosting

Leave the pastry out to defrost for half a day, or overnight in the fridge.

Put the oven on to preheat to about 200 degrees C

Empty the tin of tomatoes into a small saucepan and simmer – add some oregano and/or basil if you have it.

Chopped tinned tomotoes simmering in a pan

Sprinkle a clean surface with flour and roll out the pastry, then put it on a baking tray and fold up the edges.Pastry rolled out on baking try ready to be covered in tomatoes

Cover the pastry with the tomatoes, then add a layer of the frozen veg.Frozen veg on tart

Grate some cheese over the top, and stick it in the oven until the pastry at the sides is puffed up and nicely brown, and the cheese is all melty.Vegetable tart with cheese, all ready to be cooked

Chop up and eat.  You could serve this with chips and salad, or maybe garlic bread, and it is excellent cold.  Or just eat slices like a lovely pastry pizza.

Vegetable tart

Where Do All The Left Over Sprouts Come From? A Recipe for Spicy Sprout Soup.

Well, that’s that all done with for another year. The presents have been opened, the wine has been drunk and the resolutions made. But it’s always today when I do my post-Christmas stock-take of the fridge and grimace. Good intentions might abound but unfortunately so to do half eaten cheese platters, cakes, biscuits, pies and all those odd chocolates that no one likes at the bottom of the box.

Fortunately I know I don’t have to blow all my plans to be healthier and less wasteful because there at the bottom, under the leftover trifle and Christmas pud, is the veg drawer. Huzzah! I think, I am saved from yet more dairy and carbs! And yet as I open the drawer I know what will greet me. It’s the little green ghosts of Christmas past; brussel sprouts, by the armful. Luckily I am armed with a secret which can turn even these inglorious little fridge squatters into an appetising and surprisingly slimming little dish perfect for the New Year detox.  So here is my recipe for easy-peasy spicy-sprout soup.

1. Raid the cupboards

So we start off by raiding the cupboards for relatively few ingredients:Ingredients for a simplesprout soup, perfect for leftovers.  Onion, sprouts, potato, tabasco

1 potato,

1-2 handfuls of sprouts (replace with any other green veg if you prefer)

1 onion



Stock cube (chicken or veg work best but this is totally optional miss it out if you prefer)

And the special ingredient: Tabasco sauce

2. Heat stuff

First, get the kettle on- you will need to fill your pan in a few minutes so best get this boiling before you start. Now find yourself a decent sized pan and whack it over a low heat with 1-2 tbsps of oil while you chop the veg.

3. Chop stuff

I like my soup farmhouse style (with chunks in) so I tend to dice my veggies so that they are bite size, but it’s entirely up to you.  The smaller the bits, the quicker they cook so if you want to do this for a speedy lunchtime snack dice them finely.

Start with your onion- get it peeled, chopped and straight in the pan while you finely shred the sprouts.  Add two thirds of the sprouts to the pan and put the final third to one side for later. Give your sprouts and onions a quick stir before finSprout soup ingredients sizzling in a panally dicing your potato – don’t worry about peeling, the skins just add more flavour. Then simply chuck the potato in the pan and stir for a minute or so.

4. Simmer

Next, simply cover the veg with your pre-boiled water, add a pinch of salt, stock if you are using it and 2-3 drops of Tabasco.  Simmer for 10-20 minutes or until your potato chunks are soft enough to crush with a fork. Remove from the heat and mash using a potato masher.

Remember those sprouts I told you to hold back? Add them now and leave the soup to stand for a further 5 minutes. This will allow the soup to thicken and the latest sprouts to soften without losing their vibrancy.

5. Season & Serve

At last, taste time. Make sure you taste your soup before you serve it. It will need seasoning here and how much depends on the age and condition of your ingredients to start with and your own preference. I like mine very spicy so I tend to add a lot of black pepper and another 3-4 drops of Tabasco at this point. I know full well when it gets to the table my husband will always add more salt so I tend to under-salt here on purpose.

And there you have it, ready to serve, an easy-peasy lunch with minimal ingredients, minimal fuss and maximum good girl (or boy) points.  I have had mine just with some breadsticks left over from New Year’s Eve broken up as croutons for lunch, but I have an adaptation of Alicia’s Bread Recipe for the Slapdash in the oven as I type to go with tomorrow lunch’s serving (if either lasts that long).

Sprout soup ready to eat

Bastards of Shop – Culinary Advice

I’ve known her a couple of years. She used to drink in the same pub as me – you don’t see her in there now, I think the poverty’s starting to bite – and one time, we chatted at the bus stop for a quarter of an hour. She turned out to be a big fan of the Rebus books, and was massively impressed with my baby daughter.

Now, I see her every day I’m working (which recently is pretty much all of them), because she rolls up on her mobility scooter, comes in, buys four cans of Strongbow Super, attempts to engage me or whoever in small talk, then leaves.

Today she bought five cans of Strongbow Super.

“Special occasion?” I asked (well, you have to show willing.)

“No, I’m cooking tonight. What you want to do is, get yourself a gammon steak, and cook it in this [waggles can of Tramp Drink at me]. Bit of mustard, it’s gorgeous.”

When I started this post I was honestly intending it to be a Springsteen-esque lament about how society’s broken her down but she’s doing the best she can, but the fact is she smells of piss and cooks with cans of 9% cider, and I’m fucking glad she doesn’t come stinking up the tavern any more.

Six more months of this job and I will be a Nazi.

Bread Recipe for the Slapdash

Making bread is lovely, and is about the easiest thing possible.  It seems to have a kind of mystique around it, and while a nice big loaf of tiger bread from the supermarket is nice, nothing beats a nice chunk of tasty homemade bread, with butter thickly spread on top. Really good bread can be like a savoury cake – it doesn’t need anything else and has its own depths of flavour and texture.

Ignore weights and measures and just go by feel – it is almost impossible to mess up.  It feels wrong calling this a recipe, so here is my method.  Everyone has their own little variations, but it is all basically flour, water and  yeast.


Put some bread flour in a mixing bowl.  I like about a third wholemeal and two thirds white, but go with what you feel like (or happen to have in the cupboard)  Apparently newer flour is better, but I’ve never noticed a difference, so buy it when it is on offer and keep in a sealed container.

You want approximately half a normal sized bag of flour. but a bit more will just make a bit more bread and vis versa.


Next you need yeast.  With instant yeast, put in one packet, or do whatever the container says on the side for other types.

Then add a good big spoon of sugar and a smaller one of salt, and a big glug of oil of some kind (olive is nicer, but vegetable or sunflower is fine)

Here is my secret – you don’t have to, but you will get a better result if you crush a vitamin C tablet and add it to the mix.


Get some blood temperature water – it should just feel pleasantly warm to your fingers.  Mix it in bit by bit until the dough looks like, well, dough.  Don’t worry if you put too much water in – just add more flour.


This is the fun bit- chuck loads of flour onto a surface – a scrubbed table, a chopping board, whatever.  Then attack the dough – pull it, squash it, squish it, roll it.  I press any passing children into service for this bit – my four year old is a dab hand.  If things get sticky, add more flour.  Do that till you, or the child, gets bored.  Then put the dough back into the bowl and put it somewhere warm – imagine it is a cat, and put it where a cat would go.  Unless there is already a cat there – in that case, put it somewhere else.  You can also put it in the fridge overnight if you like, which is slower, but can give better results.

KNEAD TWOHomemade bread for slapdash peopel

When the dough is twice the size it used to be, get it out and do another knead.  Then find some kind of baking tray and put the dough on it – make sure there is room for it to become double the size.  Put your oven on to heat up – about 200 degrees if you have a oven that lets you choose.  I used to use a range oven and just used the hot bit.  Put the dough somewhere warm again – near the heating up oven could be good – until it has expanded to slightly less than twice its size.  Then put in the oven.

It will be quite happy in the oven while other stuff is cooking, or I have even baked it in the oven after it is turned off from cooking a big meal.

The bread is ready when it a) looks like bread and b) if you pick it up and tap the bottom, it sounds hollow.


My slapdash approach to recipes does mean that the bread turns out different each time, but I like that.  You can also add seeds, garlic, olives, cheese, onion – whatever you like, and you can put it in weird shapes if that floats your boat.

Ooh, and something worth trying is to get the oven steamy – I sometimes put a yorkshire pudding dish of hot water on the bottom of the oven.  It makes the crust nicer and seems to make the bread softer.

Beetroot Risotto

Not enough food is purple, are we all agreed?

Good, with that decided, I shall now share with you my recipe for beetroot risotto. A lot of people turn their nose up at beetroot, usually because for some very strange reason, they don’t like pickled beetroot. I can’t fathom why they wouldn’t love it, the stuff is beautiful on a cheese sandwich with some salad cream, and a handful of ready salted crisps shoved into it. You just have to hope that the beetroot doesn’t fall out of the sandwich and stain your clothes.

On the topic of beetroot staining you, for this recipe you will require rubber gloves when grating the beetroot (there’s a sentence I didn’t expect to be writing when I woke up this morning). Or, if you like having bright pink hands, you can omit the gloves.

It also helps to have all of your ingredients prepared and ready to put into the pan whilst making this, as you cannot leave the pan whilst cooking a risotto, as it has to be stirred continuously.

Beetroot Risotto


  • raw beetroots, grated (one beetroot per person)
  • shallots, finely chopped
  • garlic, finely chopped
  • risotto rice
  • vegetable stock, kept warm
  • white wine
  • white Stilton
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • oil
  • butter


  1. In a little oil and butter, gently sweat the finely chopped shallots and garlic, until slightly translucent. Add a small grind of salt at this point, as it stops the shallot from burning.
  2. Add the beetroot and sweat for a good few minutes until it begins to go tender, stirring regularly. You may need to add a splash of stock, but only a tiny splash.
  3. Add the risotto rice. I usually go for a handful and a half per person (this recipe also works at one beetroot per person). Gently fry the rice for a few minutes
  4. Add a glass of white wine, and simmer until absorbed, stirring continuously
  5. Once the wine is absorbed, add a ladle of the stock, and stir until absorbed.
  6. Repeat step five until there is no more stock left, and all the rice is cooked well. The rice should be creamy, but still have a little bite in the centre, and it should not be clumpy, the ideal risotto should be quite viscous, so that when separated in the pan down the middle, it oozes together again.
  7. Check for seasoning, serve and sprinkle with crumbled white Stilton
  8. Ideal to be served with garlic bread

And the Wise Men Came, Bearing Gifts

Selecting The Right Present is never easy. Boy have we gone off-piste at times, – sponsoring renovation of a choice book at the British Library for a bookworm father-in-law or saving a selection of choice rare organic seeds at Henry Doubleday’s research gardens for a keen gardener without green fingers. But in a new culture, and where the different communities have very different value systems, it all gets more complex.

In UK I would think buying a Jacqueline Wilson paperback or two a perfectly acceptable present for a nine year old girl’s birthday. Here I scan the back of the book again, recall the child’s parents and their backgrounds, – might it include talk of boyfriends, swearing, alcohol, failure to believe in God, divorce, Harry Potter [=witchcraft]? Or indeed, if its Jacqueline Wilson, the full monty of them all? Put that high-risk book back and opt for a board game. ‘Boring!’

In UK a Tesco Finest bottle of wine brings a smile of good will to the harrassed class teacher at the end of term. In Kenya I decide wine is fine for the mzungu teacher, but no, SecondBorn’s teacher is an evangelical Christian Kenyan, almost certainly teetotal, chocolates for her.

And what of our guards? Thinnish men, managing on the Kenyan minimum wage, already getting an additional food allowance from us. What would bring them and their families a happier Christmas? We opted for a food hamper, but which one? One of the families at school advertised their company’s hamper to the parent body. Contains palm oil (for cooking), a slab of lard, a tub of blueband margarine and a bag of soap powder. ‘They’ll love it!’ enthused MoreExperiencedFriend, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy what, to my eyes, was TheWorstPresent ever.

Tom always laughs at my choice of Christmas books for him. Some very clearly are bought with solely him in mind, ‘Wildlife Photography for Experts’ for example. Others, however, he identifies as the Crossover Presents, on which he assesses I will be checking his progress at weekly intervals during the year to come. ‘How did you get on with that detective novel? Can I read it now? Pur-lee-eesee.’ And, as the year wears on, ‘Oh do get a move on. I didn’t buy it just for you you know.’ So yes, part of my criteria in the family present-giving and beyond, is to select a present you hope will really give pleasure to the recipient, but wouldn’t mind getting yourself. Tub of margarine, stricken from the list.

So back to the guards. I opted in the end for a high-class Kenyan food hamper. No chocolates nor pickles and wines in this. But a bag of dried beans, two bags of flour, a bag of sugar, a box of teabags, a tube of minty toothpaste, cooking oil, candles and so on, all put together in a practical (but vile-looking) 1970s plastic basket. Very basic rations to a Western mind. But costing, I realised, a third of a monthly wage for our guards. I was anxious giving them, but did think, well at least they could sell them on if they don’t hit the spot. But everyone’s delight seemed unforced, and today, a week on, E came and said ‘The Christmas box, it so made our Christmas.’ Which in itself is so chastening. Last year’s homemade choice of goods – phonecard, cash, torch, biscuits, chocolates – were the first time his children had ever tasted chocolate.

This year I’d managed the expat Christmas food experience far better than last year. I’d got sourcing key bits in September (mince meat), had bought the troublesome red cabbage in early December, and had put in requests to friends visiting Nairobi for business (chocolate coins, more mince pies, Christmas cake). We and our guests had eaten well. So I was downcast beyond to hear that, when we returned from our two day safari, two children had been found sorting through our rubbish bags outside the gate. Sifting through the nappies of our toddler guests, the rotten food from two weeks ago, the wrapping paper and accoutrements of a Western Christmas, to find tins and plastic which they could sell on (which anyway our handyman had taken), and cast-off food which they and their family could eat. They’d gone by the time I heard. But Kenya is a land of poverty. Christmas inclusion can’t just mean giving to those within our electric fence.

Man Shall Not Live By Sausage Alone

“The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the Sixth Reich.”

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Listening to an Austrian German covers band called The Enzianer perform a heavily accented version of YMCA to a beer-hall full of Leondensians, whilst drinking a litre of lager from a stein and eating an enormous sausage, as an experience, has to rank highly on my personal weirdness quotient.

Continental markets – in the case of Millennium Square in Leeds, specifically German – are not an unfamiliar event in our cities during the festive season. The northern city upholds its reputation as a retail destination with a suitably seasonal setting of wooden stalls dressed up like gingerbread houses, selling items both genuinely German as well as ersatz European.

There’s a limit to the amount of time you can spend looking at nutcrackers and carved wooden frogs, or eating stollen and schokokuss without starting to feel like Augustus Gloop, so it’s soon time to retreat to the pastime enjoyed by both nations: drinking.

The hub of the square is the raucous beer hall, which looks across between a traditional krauthaus and a wild-west saloon, featuring, over the entrance, a group of mechanical monks and farmers. I find these kinds if dioramas disturbing, but fortunately for me these autokrauts are turned off today. Inside, rows of benches are filled with a mixture of locals and tourists swilling beer, shouting prost, banging tables and singing along to the entertainment’s suspiciously un-German set list. It’s not like you’re handed a pair of lederhosen at the door, and, at best, the room feels like an English bar abroad, with only token nods to authenticity. The band appears every hour, plays virtually the same forty-five minutes of songs, and then disappears for a break and presumably to slit their wrists. After a few hours of this I’m dizzier than if I’d been riding the carousel outside for a week.

The problem with these kinds of events is over-subscription. At the beginning of the 21st Century I’d hope us Brits are sufficiently sophisticated enough to understand the concept of a French loaf or German frankfurter, and of the comparative value of long bread or longer sausages well enough to know when we’re being fleeced in the name of fun. Mulled wine and giant pretzels are hardly precious and unknown delicacies on our shores but still the crowds flock to buy them. Is it just the novelty value and the rare opportunity to break-up the monotonous strings of high-street chains in the almost indistinguishable city centres we’re used to? When we go abroad we seek out home comforts like chunky chips and Sky Sports rather than sample the local equivalent, so why are we so eager to give them a go when they’re on our doorstep?

I’m all for anything different that adds a little spice to the bland and frustrating Christmas shopping experience, like the cinnamon and cloves added to mulled wine. As far as I’m concerned this fayre would be a welcome regular feature that would enliven any city centre, but I don’t know if they would have wide enough appeal. There are elements of the wider public that are stuck in a Britain of the past, and think themselves thoroughly sophisticated for eating a takeaway chicken tikka regularly every Friday night. There are others who are prepared to give things a try. I’m not going to try to imbue this short article with my pro-European, progressive agenda, but sometimes I wish we wouldn’t be so isolationist, and that doesn’t just go for waiting for other cultures to be brought to us before we’re prepared to sample them.

Leeds German Market is on in Millennium Square until 18th December.


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